The “Kabhi” Connection

I like to get down to the original meaning of things. For example, the Russian word for “thank you”, “spasibo“, comes from “spasi (tebya) Bog“, which means “God save (you)”. It’s just a short version.

In English, we say “bless you”, when someone sneezes, or use the longer version “God bless you”, depending on the situation. In Spanish, when you want to say that “it’s hot (outside)”, you say “hace calor“, which literally means “makes heat”. The original form of this expression is “Dios hace calor“, which means “God makes heat”. Which is why “makes” (“hace“) is the second person singular. Same goes for “hace frio“, which means “it’s cold”. Somehow, slowly but surely God became largely erased from the human language.

During the COVID pandemic, the Indian government released an app called “Aarogya Setu“. When I saw the news, I was quite surprised by the name. “Aarogya” means “health” in Sanskrit, and the name of the app means “the bridge to heath”.

Screenshot ofआरोग्य/आरोग्य-meaning-in-english

Now, if you are not familiar with Belarusian and Ukrainian words for “health”, you may not understand why I was surprised. “Health” is “zdaroŭye” in Belarusian”, and “zdorov’ya” in Ukrainian.

If you take the front part from Belarusian”zdaro – ” and the back part from Ukrainian “– v’ya” , you’ll end up with an artificially produced word “zdarov’ya“, which looks like its Sanskrit cousin “aarogya“. Thing is, the Russian version “zdorov’ye” is missing key vowels “a” and “ya”. So, I needed Belarusian and Ukrainian versions as bridges to see that connection.

When you know enough Indo-European languages (like three or four), you begin to notice subtle similarities. However, sometimes related words don’t seem related until you find the missing link. That’s what happened to me when I saw the Italian word “aperto“, which means “open”, for the first time.

A sign saying “We are open” in Italian and English.

When I saw it, it dawned on me where the Spanish “abierto” came from.

There is a Russian word “zaperto“, which means “locked”. It’s antonym, “otperto” (“unlocked”), is hardly ever used, although it exists in dictionaries. To me, the Russian “otperto” (which is pronounced more like “atperto“) and the Italian “aperto” look like the same word. And now you can see the chain of modifications that brings us to the Spanish variant: otperto (Ru) – aperto (It.) – abierto (Sp.)

Now, notice the difference in the meaning. The Russian for “open” and “closed” is “otkryto” and “zakryto” respectively. “Otperto” and “zaperto” have the meaning of “unlocked” and “locked” – a physical lock has to be involved for the speaker to be able to use those words. However, in Italian and Spanish “aperto/abierto” mean “open” in a wide sense. Isn’t it fascinating how word forms and meanings evolve over time?

And now I’d like to talk about the “kabhi” word. I always struggled to understand the grammar in the title of the Hindi film “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.” It loosely translates as “Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad“, but the repetition of “kabhi…, kabhi…” intrigued me. “Kabhi khabi” means “sometimes” or “at times” in Hindi – at least that’s what the dictionary says.

Now, the logic of “kabhi…, kabhi…” seems similar to the “superposition” in quantum physics: both possibilities coexist at once, but only one of them becomes a reality when you check. Basically, people can be either happy or sad at any give time with equal probability. And if you go and check on them, you’ll know, whether they are happy or sad at a given moment. Also, “kabhi… kabhi…” emphasizes the duality of this alteration. The two possibilities are similar to the left/right spin in qubits. You don’t know which one it is, until you stop the machine.

To get to the bottom of this, I looked up the origin of “kabhi.” I was formed by gluing together “kab” (“when”) and “hi” (an intensifying particle in Sanskrit).

A screenshot from Wikipedia.

And this is when it gets interesting. I don’t know Hindi, but the dictionary says there are two words for “when”: “kab” or “jab.” Also “when” alludes to a specific point on a timeline. This point is a condition that should be met for a particular synchronicity to occur. Let’s put that aside for a moment, and see how “kab” maps to words in related languages.

There is “kaby” in Old Russian that means “if (only)”. And there is “kab” in modern Belarusian that also means “if (only)”. Finally, there is “yakby” in Ukrainian, again meaning “if (only)”. (Please note that none of these words mean “when”).

“If” points to a condition, and “only” points to the fact that it is isolated. At the same time, “if (only)” is a typically English construction. In other languages it’s just “kaby“, “kab” and “yakby“, one solid conjunction. And it is different from pure “if” in all the above-mentioned languages.

But what is a “pure ‘if'”? It’s not a trivial question. Let’s look at the situation when “if” is used to signify a dual choice as in “Ask him if he wants tea.” He might or might not want tea – both are a possibility, but only one could be real.

EnglishForeign language
SpanishAsk him if he wants teaPregúntale si quiere té
BelarusianAsk him if he wants teaSpytajcie jaho, ci choča jon harbaty
UkrainianAsk him if he wants teaZapytayte yoho, chy khoche vin chayu
RussianAsk him if he wants teaSprosite yego, khochet li on chayu

So it’s “si“, “ci“, “chy” or “li” in discussed languages. But I just realized that if I were to say this sentence in German, the word would be “ob” 🙂

English: Ask him if he wants tea

German: Frag ihn, ob er Tee möchte

Now, I’m not saying that “ob” and “kab” are related, but there is a possibility here. BTW, in modern Hindi, “if” is “agar“, which comes from Persian/Farsi  اگر‎ (agar).

Some people say that Sanskrit is similar to Russian, but they say it because they have not heard Belarusian. Its phonetics, vocabulary and word formation are as close as it gets.

A screenshot of

Over the years, I have come across so many similarities between words and grammar in Indo-European languages, it’s easy to see how they could have been one language a very long time ago.

About four or five years ago, I went to a lecture about the Proto Indo-European language, which is considered the oldest ancestor language, even older than Sanskrit. There is no written or oral proof of this language, so it only exists as a hypothesis. The only way scientists can get a glimpse of it is by going far back in the history of different Indo-European languages and tracking down systemic changes that led to deviations from the common mother tongue.

For example, Greek stands apart as an isolated Indo-European language, because for a long time it was developing on its own. However, if you look at words like “maha” (Hindi), “mucho” (Spanish), “much” (English), “mnogo” (Russian), “multo” (Italian) and “mega” (Greek), you’ll see that they all have a meaning of multitude/greatness.

A monument to Alexander the Great that says “Alexandros Omegas” in Thessaloniki, Greece (photo by Solanah)

That said, this post clearly started as a search for the true meaning of “kabhi“, which I still have not found. But even without the definitive answer, its ties to similar words in related languages are obvious.


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